Saturday, May 23, 2009

Between Belfast and Boston, Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks"

I have a ritual in May. It begins once the weather has gotten warm enough and the sunlight expansive enough. I set aside whatever I am doing while a train ride home to Connecticut or back to Boston and play Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" quietly on my iPod and try to drift off to sleep.

"That album came out of nowhere," my music-loving coworker at the Globe once remarked to me with wide-eyed reverence.

It is one of the best albums we might ever hope to hear, and forty years out from its release it still sounds fresh, contemporary and groundbreaking. It was indie way before we had indie artists. The story behind the album's release is remarkable and supports exactly what the music suggests. And yet we will probably never know exactly where it came from and what it is about. Isn't that wonderful?

Elvis Costello: "Still the most adventurous record made in the rock medium,
and there hasn't been a record with that amount of daring made since."

My advice? Listen to it late at night as you try to fall asleep.

One evening in May 2007 I was sitting on an Amtrak train heading north as the daylight began to wane and the sunset set in. I played "Astral Weeks" on a whim, and I heard beautiful music in a brand new way, in a way that only a peaceful train ride can make real.

I had owned it a long time before I actually gave it a good listen. I already knew Morrison's album "Moondance" backward and forward; "And It Stoned Me" will forever be a staple of my spring playlist.

But this was head and shoulders above everything I had ever gotten from the bluesy, more radio-friendly "Moondance" and most albums for that matter.

I listened closely to the lyrics of the title track, some of the most poignant opening lyrics I have ever heard:

"If I venture in the slipstream,
Between the viaducts of your dream
Where immobile steel rims crack
And the ditch in the back roads stops
Could you find me?

Would you kiss-a my eyes?

To lay me down

In silence easy

To be born again

To be born again."

It's the carefully churning rhythm from a maraca. It's the depth of the sparse bass line. It's the deliberateness of the acoustic guitar notes. It's the jazz elements, perhaps most obvious with the pleasantly surprising flute, that open up the imagination. It's the beat poetry delivered by perhaps the greatest blue-eyed soul singer ever.

It is a truly original opening to an album that creates and inhabits its own dreamscapes. It's a ragtag collection of sounds and a poet's sights that just sort of happened inside a studio.

And those strings! Those string sections in the opening track that pull you in like a breath of fresh air. You don't necessarily hear them the first time, but once you do you wonder where "Astral Weeks" has been your entire life thus far.

The way they support this stream-of-consciousness imagery about kissing the eyes of the passed and the reincarnated. Who is this person in love with a girl and with life itself who looks "way up in the heaven," where he knows he has "a home on high?"

That violin that flows and ascends out of the background as Morrison sings, "There you go/ Takin' good care of your boy/ Seein' that he's got clean clothes/ Puttin' on his little red shoes/ I see you know he's got clean clothes/ A-puttin' on his little red shoes/ A-pointin' a finger at me."

This faceless narrator appears throughout the album walking fine lines between love and lust and faith and longing. This careful stepping arrives at compassion and empathy.

There is something in here about the simple beauty of the ordinary. Something about the way Morrison sings praises to the act of falling in love in "Beside You," "Sweet Thing," and the jazzy "The Way Young Lovers Do" contrasts so perfectly with the sadness of the confrontation of death in the closing song "Slim Slow Slider." The way he asks a young girl to "step on up" in "Ballerina" is so indicative of an artist believing in the certainty of standing on one's two feet. This album must be taken as a whole, and if a singer-songwriter could be described as an impressionist, Van Morrison would be deserving of the title.

Imagine Morrison's life in 1968, a twenty-something who has lost nearly everything. Morrison's "Brown-Eyed Girl" was an incredible success on the radio in the mid-1960s. But then everything fell to pieces.

Twenty-two, broke, down on the ground. He couldn't meet the success of the hit that had made him famous and had now left him a washed-up has-been. His manager had died of a sudden heart attack. He was living in Cambridge, Mass. in a rundown house with his girlfriend and newborn child, a bare-bones existence with nothing but a mattress on the floor. He was playing intimate shows to make a living and was "literally starving."

Then, he collected a group of musicians to record an album in New York. It would mix his favorite kinds of music: gospel, folk, R&B, jazz. It would be a giant fuck-you to the record label that only wanted "Brown-Eyed Girl No. 2."

Reports say there wasn't much rehearsing. It just sort of came out of him and his accompanists.

It's wrong to romanticize poverty. However, the fact that something this moving and powerful could come out of someone whose financial interests lay in radio-friendly hits, and who must have known it wasn't lucrative, says something about an inner spirit that is beyond calculation. This is music, and it is as compelling as we always hope music can be.

There is joy and mourning. There is a nod to past memories, youthful optimism and naivete. There is a pull to live in the moment. I think's it's all the most evident and enduring on my favorite track, "Madame George."

It begins so slow and quietly on a street in East Belfast called Cyprus Avenue, a tree-lined road Morrison grew up near that I had to visit when I spent a month in Northern Ireland last summer. All of these pictures are from a solo walking tour I made to visit all the places mentioned in "Astral Weeks."

To stand there with the entire album playing in your ears as you stare down the canopy-shaded avenue and into the hedge-guarded gardens, and later, into the Georgian-era glass design above the doors of the apartment buildings on Fitztroy Avenue or the long, steel rails extending out from Sandy Row station in City Centre, is simply surreal.

"Down on Cyprus Avenue/ With a childlike vision leaping into view/ Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe/ Ford & Fitzroy, Madame George"

The mourning that comes across with another sparse bass line and a delicate and atmospheric violin is summed up in one word: goodbye.

It's a goodbye to youth and a friend, the irreplaceable and unforgettable Madame George. The pain is palpable when the narrator "falls into a trance" and "with your folded arms and history books you glance into the eyes of Madame George."

The loss of the past and the uncertainty of the future, one forever entombed on Cyprus Avenue and the other awaiting down the tracks in the dark places like Sandy Row, comes from the sadness of the strings and the simple acceptance in Morrison's soulful and quiet delivery.

"And you know you gotta go
On that train from Dublin up to Sandy Row

Throwing pennies at the bridges down below

And the rain, hail, sleet, and snow
Say goodbye to Madame George

Dry your eye for Madame George

Wonder why for Madame George."

Morrison's beautiful "say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye" that completes a long and sorrowful journey from the comfort of home to the uncertainty of a cabin on a train fades into mistiness, as if the lonesome narrator is himself passing into a peaceful sleep. The loving places of childhood are about to erupt into political violence. And yet what more can be said about this ending that the crescendo in the whirling violin playing cannot say for itself?

From nothingness and despair, Morrison revealed an inner beauty amidst turmoil. He doesn't revel in the sadness that stalks his life; he pays homage to it. But it isn't a sad album. It finds the strands of a peaceful existence and holds on tight awaiting the soul Morrison's musical heroes must have instilled in his voice. It is an acceptance of the passing of the days and an uplifting vision of what the spirit can and will accomplish despite the jagged shards of yesterday.

It is, simply, stunning summer music.

"Say goodbye, goodbye, goodbye..."